Ray Isle's Sake Buying Guide
There's something odd going on with Japan when it comes to wine. A couple of weeks ago a company there launched a wine for cats, and last week I received news that there's now going to be a Hello Kitty Champagne. And, you know, it's not that I'm anti–Hello Kitty or anything—my daughter, when she was seven, had a big fondness for putting Hello Kitty stickers all over everything, including my wine fridge. But look: She was seven. That's a great age to be into Hello Kitty stuff. It's just not a great age to be drinking Champagne.
So, my feeling is, if you want to support the Japanese beverage industry (or if you just want something excellent to accompany your sushi), drink sake.
Sake is wonderful, but still only marginally understood in the US. Essentially, it's an alcoholic rice beverage, neither beer nor wine, typically about 15 to 17 percent alcohol. There's a world of sake terms out there one could learn, but four crucial ones—because you'll see them on sake labels—are junmai (no added alcohol), honjozo (a little added alcohol, making the sake a little lighter-bodied and more fragrant), ginjo (highly milled rice, resulting in more complex sake), daiginjo (even more highly milled rice, ditto).
Much in the way you wouldn't try to describe what beer tastes like by saying, “Well, it's kind of like wine, but more bitter, and fizzy, and not as fruity, and…” it's hard to describe sake in the context of other beverages. Primarily, it tastes like sake. But it's safe to say it also has a somewhat silky texture, often a floral aroma, orchard fruit notes that can recall apples or pears, and an underlying earthy-savory character.
A few top bottles to look for include Tozai Living Jewel Junmai ($18, on the lighter, creamier side, and great for the price), Rihaku Wandering Poet Junmai Ginjo ($35, a softer, more full-bodied style), Eikun Water Lords Junmai Ginjo ($36, from the area around Kyoto, with a satiny texture), Gassan Mountain Moon Junmai Ginjo ($36, definitely an earthy style), and Wakatake Onikoroshi Demon Slayer Junmai Daiginjo ($45, deeply flavorful, with a luscious texture; plus it's fun to say things like, “Now serve me some Demon Slayer, my good man”). The Momokawa Silver ($13, crisp and lightly melony) is also an interesting affordable option: Unlike the rest of these, which are Japanese, it's made in Oregon.
And, a word to the wise, if you do splurge on a good sake, instead of zapping it in the microwave to heat it up, serve it chilled—a hour in the fridge is about right.